Schumacher stakes his claim as lord of the ring

European Grand Prix: Dominating performance by world champion focuses attention on new qualifying format
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The Independent Online

You know there is a problem when the qualifying everyone is talking about is the one that might be introduced for the British Grand Prix and not the one that you have just watched. But that's how it was at the Nürburgring yesterday, and you can thank one M Schumacher for that.

Unless Ferrari have changed their strategy and gone for an early refuelling stop, thus running Schumacher lighter than his opposition rather than a little heavier as has been the case so far this year, he and Ferrari are going to trample everyone else this afternoon. All of their rivals hope like crazy that the lighter load scenario is the reason for the world champion's 0.635sec advantage, but it is unlikely. Monaco was fun. Welcome back to reality.

There was hope of a fight when BAR-Honda's Takuma Sato astonished all with the fastest lap of the weekend to push Schumacher off the top slot in pre-qualifying - 1min 27.691sec to 1min 28.278sec - but despite the Japanese racer's best efforts qualifying was a one-horse show. A big, black prancing horse, to be precise.

Once the backmarkers completed their moment in the sun doing their single laps, the Monaco winner, Jarno Trulli, forgot about his croaky voice (a result of celebrating his breakthrough win), strapped himself into his Renault and jumped to the top of the timesheet with a lap of 1min 29.135sec. It was good enough to resist Juan Pablo Montoya's BMW-Williams (1min 29.354sec). The Colombian was then edged aside first by Trulli's team-mate, Fernando Alonso (1min 29.313sec), then by Rubens Barrichello's Ferrari, by the narrowest of margins (1min 29.353sec).

One of the welcome features of the weekend has been the return to form of McLaren, on their engine partner Mercedes-Benz's home ground. This time last year Kimi Raikkonen took pole and left the field faster than a train leaving a hobo, but then his engine blew up spectacularly and Ralf Schumacher swept home to victory for arch rival BMW. There were suspicions in practice this time that McLaren, perish the thought, might have been grandstanding with minimal fuel to placate sponsors concerned about the team's less-than-stellar performances so far this year, but unless Raikkonen refuels after five laps, qualifying suggested that the team have made some progress.

David Coulthard also did his bit for team public relations, but when he was busily waving to the crowd after his pre-qualifying lap, his McLaren was on the back of a flatbed recovery truck after his car broke its engine on his in lap. This was a bitter blow because he had been faster than Raikkonen in that session. Like Giancarlo Fisichella, he will start from the back because of his engine problem.

There was strong disappointment for Jenson Button, too. He had been the fastest yet again in both Saturday morning sessions, setting the fastest lap until that point, but his BAR-Honda still lacked grip and the best he could do, 1min 29.245sec, would ultimately only be good enough for fifth on the grid. Ralf Schumacher could not beat that in his BMW-Williams and ended with 1min 29.459sec, but brother Michael pulled out another superb lap to grab pole with 1min 28.351sec, 0.784sec faster than Trulli. Much was expected of the last runner, Sato, after pre-qualifying but his best was "only" 1min 28.986sec. That, nevertheless, made him the first Japanese to sit on the front row.

That new qualifying format? The idea is two 20-minute sessions, separated by 20 minutes. Drivers can run with the lowest possible fuel loads so speeds will be "real", but the best times from their sessions will be aggregated to form their grid time. After that the cars will go straight to parc fermé so that they must start the race in the trim in which they finished qualifying, which inevitably will mean some level of compromise between optimum qualifying and race configuration. Teams will also be able to add their secret amounts of race fuel in parc fermé.

This means that all of the cars will be out on the track at the same time, just like the old days, placing a premium on finding a clear lap. Drivers will get two three-lap runs in each session and once again the man who is genuinely the fastest will most likely be on pole position.

"I'm worried that we might miss the quick lap," observed the ITV commentator Martin Brundle. "We never saw Montoya's qualifying lap at Monte Carlo in 2002, for instance. And of course everyone will complain about traffic. I'm not sure I like aggregated times, either, but they do seem to work pretty well in slalom skiing, don't they? I hope it works. They've got one more shot to do it properly, if they are going to keep their credibility."

The new format needs to be ratified by the World Motor Sport Council at the end of June, but could first be used at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix in July.

Meanwhile, the fastest man in the fastest car starts today's race from pole position. As usual, only the race will reveal who ran what weight of fuel in qualifying, but if you were thinking of betting your house on anyone but the world champion winning, start looking for somewhere else to live now.

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